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Courage Under Fire
It was getting close to five in the evening when Raju, the forest guard’s son, came and informed us that a villager’s buffalo had been killed by a tiger. Since my friend’s father was looking after the rehabilitation program of the forest department for the villagers, it was his duty to investigate such kills and confirm that it was actually the doing of a tiger.It was not uncommon for villagers to claim that all the cattle that died in the region, whatever the reason for their death may have been, had been killed by tigers.
They were given a decent compensation, if the involvement of a tiger was confirmed. This time, we were also allowed to go along to learn how to investigate a kill. My friend’s father said we should hurry because it was already getting close to sundown and tigers are known to return to their kills once the cover of darkness envelopes the surroundings. So without much ado, we were off in the jeep to find the kill.
We’d been driving for half an hour when we arrived at the closest point on the path to the kill. From here on we would have to trek through very thick undergrowth to reach the spot. We had been visiting jungles quite often since childhood but never had my heart beaten so fast as it was doing when we pushed our way in through the first of those thorny bushes. My friend’s father signalled us all to be absolutely quiet for a while as he listened for any kind of a signal from the surrounding jungle about the whereabouts of the predator. There was not a sound except the chirping of some birds. Some of them on their way back to their nests for the night and others that were startled by our intrusion into their territory.
He listened a while longer and then feeling a little more satisfied about the safety of the venture, moved on in the direction of the kill. We were extremely excited about the whole thing and kept looking ahead to try and get a look of the kill. There wasn’t a sign yet. We need not have bothered concentrating so much on the search because as we reached around 20 yards from the kill, the stench of the already decaying carcass began to fill the air. The kill had obviously been there for more than a single day and was already partly eaten. I could see our "tutor" relax a little as he could see that the tiger had already had quite a meal the previous night. He then began our lessons.
The first part we examined was whatever was left of the hind legs. On these, there were clearly visible straight deep gashes where the tiger had dug in it’s claws to pull down the victim. The second part of the body to be checked was the neck. This was absolutely intact still. On it we were shown the teeth marks where the tiger had implemented the famous choke grip to cut off air supply to the lungs. After showing us these two clear indications of tiger kills and other big cats, we were being asked what else we thought we could look for in case neither of these two were found, when suddenly my friend’s father stopped mid sentence and stood absolutely still. He raised his hand and motioned us all into keeping absolutely silent and still. We were wondering what he was trying to listen for when all of a sudden a deer gave it’s loud warning call around 50 yards from where we were! The sudden call of alarm made us all almost jump out of our skins. The Tiger was in the vicinity and on the move!!
We were still wondering what to do when two of us were quickly pushed into facing one direction, while the other two faced the other. Initially I thought my heart was going to explode but I think once the mind kind of reconciled itself to death, everything seemed to calm down. Or so I thought! I could see we were being slowly edged towards the only tree in the surrounding area. Just as we got to around the middle of the clearing we were in, there was this earth-shattering roar from the direction of the tree. Following this roar, I remember the vision of a bush almost blowing apart to make way for this tiger coming straight at us, at a speed I didn’t think was possible except for jet planes!! It was a massive tiger, his muscles rippling, his teeth all bared, his eyes a brilliant bluish-grey, his body kept really low and his roar sounding like a million thunderbolts going off at the same time. I think my friend and I screamed at the top of our lungs out of horror and fright but his father and the forest guide very purposely raised their arms and let out very impressive "roars" of their own. The tiger came up to within 10 feet from us when this loud retaliation luckily had it’s desired effect and he changed direction all of a sudden. As quickly as he had come down on us, he disappeared into the jungle to our left. We all edged our way a little faster towards the tree. I knew that tigers were known to be able to sometimes climb trees but somehow at that time that tree was the only glimmer of hope I could see.
We were now only around ten yards from the tree. My friend’s father had picked up an abandoned bamboo stick. I wondered what good that would be against a very angry tiger!! Suddenly, just as we thought we were about to make it to the tree, came the terrifying roar once again. This time the two of us were more prepared with exactly what to do. We faced straight up to the oncoming tiger, raised our arms, looked the beast straight in the eyes and screamed as loud as our vocal cords would allow. It made no difference whatsoever this time!!! He just kept coming!!!!! He was only some ten to twelve feet from us and I was having visions of meeting my creator, when there was a loud cracking sound to my left. I don’t know how much it shocked the tiger but I know that I almost died of fright before the tiger could have had the pleasure of killing me!! The "useless" bamboo stick had been smashed against a rock at the very last moment. It was a sound that the tiger was obviously not expecting because he deflected off his initial line of attack as if struck by a bullet. This time he didn’t disappear into the bushes but instead stopped near the opposite edge of the clearing and began pacing up and down. We stood perfectly still, watching his every move. Suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks!! I don’t know whether it was a coincidence but it was exactly the same moment I felt my heart had stopped dead in my chest!!
He stood there sizing us up. Not a single muscle of his moved. The snarl on his face had gone. His expression was almost passive. At that moment, he looked almost like a confused house pussy cat. Yeah!! Confused about which of the four mice should he eat first!!! During this status quo, I remember thinking to myself, "this adorable looking animal couldn’t kill us just like that!". All that thinking changed very suddenly when some movement seemed to catch his attention and he crouched down low and once again bared his teeth. This time there was no loud roar. It sounded like a deep rumble of drums from some distant village. Suddenly he pinned his ears back against his head and one could actually see that every ounce of confusion had disappeared from his mind. I was sure he was looking straight at me!! But I’m sure every one of the other three thought the same. Then he came at us for the third time !!! I think we had all reconciled to the thought that this was going to be his last charge. One of us was going to fall prey to those jaws and claws!!! I think the tension of this third charge was too much for our old forest guide to take any more because he let out this banshee like scream and brandishing a stick wildly over his head, charged at the charger!!!!
At that moment, I was sure we were going to be witness to a very disturbing human kill. Initially the sight of this crazy man seemed to anger the tiger even more and it almost instantly doubled it’s pace. I guess it was the amazing courage of the old man staring almost definite death straight in the face that made us do what we did next. Almost in unison and without any communication between us, which there was anyway no time for, we all followed the old man into the famous proverbial well. The tiger was just about to pounce on the old man from a distance of around 8 feet when the man flung his stick at him with all his might. The stick struck the tiger straight in his face just as he took off. The tiger seemed to deviate from his path almost in midair but could not do so enough to avoid the man totally. The tiger’s left thigh collided with the left shoulder of the old man. I remember seeing a human form flying past us as we continued the charge at the beast. The tiger darted off into the jungle to his right and disappeared from sight. None of us were mad enough yet, or high enough on adrenaline, to follow him in there! We turned around and ran back to the forest guide. Initially, all of us felt a sickening feeling in our stomachs as we saw his form lying motionless on the ground. What was even more worrying were the odd angles at which his body parts lay twisted. His left arm was obviously dislocated at the shoulder. His right leg too seemed to be twisted at a strange angle from the knee. My friend’s father bent down and put a finger under the nostrils. He had spent many years in these jungles roaming around with this old man and they were as much family to each other as anyone could be. There was a fraction of a smile that crossed his dark eyes as he felt the hint of some breathing. Then after laying the guide on his back and straightening his limbs, he turned his attention back in the direction of the spot from where the tiger had disappeared. He obviously heard some signs from the jungle that told him that the tiger had left the area and was moving away because he broke the silence with the first words spoken in a long…time.
The sun was now very low and it was very important to move fast. Without thinking twice, my friend’s father tore his T-shirt into strips and using some straight pieces of wood, made a splint for the guide’s leg. He tied two of the strips together and strapped the dislocated arm to the chest. He looked around to try and find something to use as a makeshift stretcher but there was no such luck. So the only other option was for the three of us to walk shoulder to shoulder and carry the man in our arms. This is a difficult enough task under normal circumstances but when you are faced with thick and thorny bushes it is almost difficult to even describe. All of us reached the jeep with torn shirts and trousers, scratches all over with blood streaming out of them. Just as we were moving the guide onto the rear seat, he started to regain consciousness. As he came around, his eyes wildly looked around to check where his attacker was. He was slowly calmed down. I think, that evening, we were all calming ourselves down too with the soothing talk we gave the forest guide. The old man then asked us to undo the strapping around his chest as he was quite used to his shoulder dislocating. To our shock and horror, with a very slight indication of pain, he just popped his arm back in!! His leg was later plastered properly at the local hospital. I don’t think the pain of his injuries even registered in the old man’s brain anymore! He just beamed proudly as we told the driver of our jeep about what all had happened. Since the driver was also from the old man’s village, he knew the tale of his bravery would be etched in the village’s history long before the first person fell asleep that night.
We sat there for quite a while, calming our nerves down. The chatter, that always seems to take over after an adventure like this, had begun as we slowly drove back to a nice hot meal we had thought we’d never be having again!!
Written by: Mohit Midha